In the wake of the campaign, there has been some astute talk about the way the Democratic netroots unfortunately came to be used as glorified ATM machines. Jakob Nielsen has the most cogent analysis of this problem
(emphasis mine): Although I don't actually claim that Bush won because of usability, I
do think that wise use of email newsletters contributed to his victory. I analyzed the email newsletters sent out by both candidates in the week prior to the election. The predominant theme of each message was distributed as follows:
Give Money 8% 57%
Get Out the Vote 38% 29%
Issues/Events 54% 14%
(I didn't count the message each candidate sent on or just before Election Day asking recipients for their vote.)
As this analysis shows, Kerry supporters were bombarded by repeated fundraising requests, to the extent that many of them probably tuned out the newsletter in the final critical days. Although the Internet is great for collecting money from the masses, there is a limit. Kerry exceeded it.
Bush sent more messages than Kerry asking supporters to get other voters to go to the polls and vote for him. This is a more appropriate use of the newsletter medium because it connects emotionally with subscribers. Being treated as an active participant in the civics process is more motivating than being regarded as an open wallet.
The netroots is at its best when it creates an emotional connection with individual progressives, allows them to connect to other like-minded people, and provides them a forum where they can become active participants in the process. Frankly, this is politics at its best, and it is essential for us to do this if we are going to grow the party nationwide. Personally, beyond the fundraising insanity and strange ossification that began in the Dean campaign near the end of September 2003, the best experiences I had in this election cycle came from Dean Meetups from May to September of 2003. This is also the time period when Dean went from being more or less an asterisk to become the frontrunner. Here is a quick list of just some of the different things we did in Philly for Dean during those five months:
- Wrote our first letters to Iowa and New Hampshire.
- Organized rallies, including a big one for 4,000 people on August 11, 2003, which at the time was the largest rally of the campaign.
- Collectively developed a Philly 4 Dean website.
- Began organizing trips to Iowa, New Hampshire and Delaware.
- Held our first House parties.
- Tabled at least fifteen different event in the area.
- Took signing up more people to the email list as our main organizing goal.
These were the great days, the creative days, the formative days. All of these activities, very few of which were connected to fundraising, brought us all personally into the campaign. We all felt like we were making a difference, and certainly not just when a bat went up on the website. Fundraising was just one of many activities we were involved in. Best of all, because these events were organized around social Meetups, they all involved meeting new people and making new friends. We were not just involved in the campaign, we were forming a new, local progressive activist organization. It was the height of excitement. Eventually, the addition of the "Get Local" link on Blog for America (one of the best things the campaign did in late September and afterward) brought this activity to even greater heights, as we were all able to become mini-organizers of small campaign events of our own creation. I personally helped organize four separate trips to Delaware before the primary there using the Get Local link. It wsa truly exciting stuff.
For me, the most fulfilling, and invigorating, aspect of the netroots to date has definitely been Meetups and the self-organized mini-Meetups on the Get Local section of Blog for America. This why I found it so sad when, sometime around June, the Kerry campaign decided to discontinue their utilization of the tremendous potential of Meetups. Zephyr Teachout has more on this:
One telling--and I think tragic--clue to this basic approach was that no major group used Meetup. Meetup is an imperfect tool, but it's by far the best tool I've ever seen for creating continuous local political communities.
The Kerry campaign stopped telling people to use Meetup in late spring and stopped listing it on their website. By late summer, it was literally impossible to find a reference to Meetup on JohnKerry.com. The Bush campaign, likewise, briefly flirted with using Meetup and then quickly stopped. While Meetups dedicated to both candidates continued to exist, their respective monthly meeting numbers stopped growing, or at best merely inched forward.
By contrast, in the Dean campaign we noticed a clear relationship between our campaign website and our Meetup numbers. Every time the Meetup icon dropped below the top part of the screen, our Meetup growth dropped in half. Every time we sent an email asking people to sign up for Meetups, growth spiked significantly. It's obvious, but really critical to recognize that Meetups that are not encouraged by their candidate/group will not grow.
These past months, I spoke to many Kerry Meetup attendees who didn't know what they should be doing to effectively help the campaign. Some ended up working for other groups. Kerry's Meetup numbers never topped 130,000. With nearly three million online supporters, they could easily have reached a million members, if not more, and half a million regular attendees. The Dean campaign ended with 160,000 Meetup members and 1,000 regular Meetups. Kerry could have had a Meetup in every county in America if he wanted to.
But not without some central leadership. An unbidden Meetup group--i.e. one that is running on its own momentum with little input from campaign HQ and little lateral contact with its cousins--is less likely to organize a campaign to write letters to the editor about the war, say, if they don't know whether the Meetup 10 miles away is doing the same thing, something different, or at cross purposes. To feel nationally powerful, local groups need a connection to a national campaign -- and to grow, local groups need a constant evangelist.
The great missed opportunity of 2004 was the failure of every major leader and leadership group to embrace and nurture the capacity of local groups of volunteer activists to form ongoing face-to-face organizing cells using the Internet. The Bush campaign did this using churches, but no group embraced the unique power of the net to do the same thing.
It will never be as good as it was in 2003, nor will it be as hopeful. Still, I think we must return to Meetups and rediscover their tremendous and still untapped power. Specifically, helping to grow and organize our two national Meetups, Democratic Party Meetups and Democracy for America Meetups, should become a priority for all major blogs and for all major Party Committees (DSCC, DCCC, DNC state parties). We will never rebuild the party unless we try and rebuild it everywhere. We will never find out who we are as a party unless we meet ourselves. Meetup can help us achieve both goals. Sign up, or RSVP, for your local Democratic Party Meetup
and your local Democracy for America Meetup
today. Dare not just to hope, but to act.